Bal­ti­more County cracks down on work­ers’ on­line be­hav­ior

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Pamela Wood and Alison Kneze­vich

As the po­lit­i­cal sea­son heats up, Bal­ti­more County is warn­ing gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees that it plans to en­force a long-stand­ing pol­icy against “bru­tal or of­fen­sive” be­hav­ior in the work­place and on pri­vate time, in­clud­ing on so­cial me­dia.

County of­fi­cials say the in­creas­ing coarse­ness of on­line be­hav­ior, par­tic­u­larly about the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, led them to re­mind em­ploy­ees of the pol­icy and re­quire su­per­vi­sors to im­ple­ment it.

“So­cial me­dia, while it has en­cour­aged in many cases lively di­a­logue, it also at times pro­motes a pas­sion that is very close to walk­ing a line in terms of how we com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other,” said Don Mohler, spokesman and chief of staff to County Ex­ec­u­tive Kevin Kamenetz.

Mohler said the county knows that peo­ple are in­creas­ingly pas­sion­ate about po­lit­i­cal and so­cial is­sues “and how com­fort­able the pub­lic is in shar­ing those pas­sions in a pub­lic fo­rum, whether it be on Face­book, Twit­ter, In­sta­gram, Snapchat, you name it.”

While free­dom of speech is a bedrock of Amer­i­can democ­racy, not all speech is pro­tected un­der the First Amend­ment. Nu­mer­ous court cases have held that em­ploy­ers — in­clud­ing gov­ern­ments — can dis­ci­pline work­ers for things they say, ac­cord­ing to Bal­ti­more County At­tor­ney Michael Field.

For ex­am­ple, a county em­ployee who hints at vi­o­lence to­ward a mem­ber of the

pub­lic or an­other em­ployee would be in vi­o­la­tion of the pol­icy, he said. The same goes for some­one who uses deroga­tory lan­guage or im­plies a mem­ber of the pub­lic wouldn’t get the same ser­vice or treat­ment from the county as an­other per­son.

But tak­ing stances on di­vi­sive is­sues would still be al­lowed.

“If some­one writes, ‘I don’t be­lieve in Black Lives Mat­ter’ or ‘All lives mat­ter,’ that is clearly pro­tected speech, and it’s not bru­tal or of­fen­sive,” Field said.

The county sent a memo to all em­ploy­ees re­cently to alert them to the pol­icy and to warn that it would be en­forced. The memo, signed by County Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fi­cer Fred Ho­man, says the county will take a “zero-tol­er­ance ap­proach” to vi­o­la­tions of the pol­icy.

“It is not our in­ten­tion to elim­i­nate hu­mor or free po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion from your per­sonal lives,” Ho­man wrote.

The memo warns em­ploy­ees that even what they say on their per­sonal so­cial me­dia ac­counts and in their per­sonal time can af­fect their job sta­tus.

County of­fi­cials said they had in­for­mal talks with union lead­ers be­fore is­su­ing the memo to the county’s 8,000 em­ploy­ees.

John Ri­p­ley, pres­i­dent of the Bal­ti­more County Fed­er­a­tion of Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees, which rep­re­sents about 1,500 county work- ers, said he’s aware of the memo but de­clined to com­ment on it.

The pol­icy has rarely been en­forced in the past. But su­per­vi­sors are now re­quired to in­ves­ti­gate any re­ports of pos­si­ble pol­icy vi­o­la­tions. Su­per­vi­sors won’t be re­spon­si­ble for watch­ing so­cial me­dia to try and fer­ret out of­fend­ers.

“This is not Big Brother,” Mohler said. “We’re not mon­i­tor­ing a thing. We’re not surf­ing so­cial me­dia sites to see who is say­ing what. It will be com­plaint-driven.”

Em­ploy­ees who are in vi­o­la­tion of the pol­icy can be rep­ri­manded with “pro­gres­sive dis­ci­pline,” rang­ing from a ver­bal warn­ing up to dis­missal. Em­ploy­ees who are mem­bers of unions can file griev­ances to chal­lenge dis­ci­plinary de­ci­sions.

The county Fire De­part­ment put a new so­cial me­dia pol­icy into place last year. The guide­lines pro­hibit mem­bers from post­ing images of de­part­men­tal uni­forms, ve­hi­cles and other prop­erty “that present the Fire De­part­ment in a neg­a­tive or un­pro­fes­sional light.”

Among other rules, fire em­ploy­ees also are not al­lowed to post things that con­sti­tute ha­rass­ment, hate speech or li­bel.

The Po­lice De­part­ment also is work­ing on a new pol­icy.

“Both of these de­part­ments have been work­ing to clar­ify these is­sues for em­ploy­ees for some time,” said Elise Ar­ma­cost, a spokes­woman for the po­lice and fire agen­cies. “We find that they are anx­ious or hun­gry for in­for­ma­tion that clar­i­fies where the bound­aries are.”

David Rose, se­cond vice pres­i­dent for the Bal­ti­more County Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice Lodge No. 4, said he does not know of any po­lice of­fi­cers be­ing dis­ci­plined for so­cial me­dia use in re­cent yeas.

“Ev­ery once in a while, I’ll have some­one that might call me and say, ‘I was go­ing to post this thing on so­cial me­dia — what do you think about it?’ ” he said. “My re­mark has al­ways been, if you need to ask that ques­tion, don’t post it.”

In Bal­ti­more, a po­lice lieu­tenant and the po­lice union are su­ing the Po­lice De­part­ment and Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis over the agency’s so­cial me­dia pol­icy.

Lt. Vic­tor Gearhart, who was a pa­trol shift com­man­der, was re­as­signed to work build­ing se­cu­rity af­ter ac­tivists de­manded the de­part­ment fire him for what they con­sid­ered of­fen­sive tweets on his per­sonal ac­count. The law­suit is pend­ing in U.S. Dis­trict Court.

Field said the county’s pol­icy, which has been on the books since 1958, is nar­rowly writ­ten to ap­ply only to “bru­tal or of­fen­sive” speech.

“There’s no cir­cum­stance un­der which be­ing bru­tal or us­ing ep­i­thets is pro­tected speech,” Field said.

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